Precautionary recall of patients at two GP practices for cervical screening

Tuesday, 12 June 2018 – Service Development and Screening
Precautionary recall of patients at two GP practices for cervical screening

The Public Health Agency (PHA) and Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) have been made aware of possible shortcomings in the technique used to take cervical screening tests (commonly referred to as cervical smears) at two GP practices. This issue affects a small number of women whose tests were taken by one particular healthcare worker.

A review team was established by the HSCB and PHA to examine this issue, and as a result a total of 150 women at Abbott’s Cross Practice in Newtownabbey and Dr McKenna’s Practice, Thames Street, Belfast have been sent invitations by their GP for a repeat cervical screening test.

Patients affected have been asked to contact their GP to arrange a repeat test. They have also been asked to seek further information if they have any concerns. This does not necessarily mean that their initial results were wrong; the repeat test is a precautionary measure to provide reassurance about their previous screening result. Each of the patients who are being contacted by the two surgeries had their cervical screening tests taken by one particular healthcare worker, who has ceased taking these tests since this issue emerged.

If you are a patient of either of these two practices and have not received a letter, there is no reason to be concerned.  You have not been impacted by this issue and there is no need to take any further action.

Dr Tracy Owen, Consultant in Public Health Medicine and Cervical Screening Lead at the PHA, said: “We understand that the women who are receiving these letters may be anxious, but we would like to reassure them that this is a precautionary measure and would urge them to accept the invitation for a repeat test.”

“In general, cervical screening aims to prevent cancer from occurring in the first place by checking for pre-cancerous changes in the cells that line the cervix. Any early changes can then be successfully treated which is why it is so important that anyone who is invited for screening to see it as a positive step in looking after their health.”

A spokesperson from the HSCB added: “This issue was picked up and reported through good vigilance, monitoring and audit processes in primary care.  An action plan has now been put in place to contact the women who may have been affected to enable them to be offered a repeat test as a precautionary measure at their earliest convenience. Together with the PHA, we have been providing advice and support to the two surgeries to help ensure that this takes place in a timely and smooth way.”

A spokesperson for the two GP practices said: “We would like to reassure the women who we are contacting that this is a precautionary recall and we have put in place arrangements for those affected to get an appointment quickly. Patients who haven’t received a letter from us have no reason to be concerned and do not need to arrange a repeat test. They should just attend for routine screening when invited.”

Notes to the editor

How many women are affected?
A total of 150 women across two GP Practices have been identified and offered a repeat screening test. To put this in context, over 130,000 cervical screening samples are taken each year across Northern Ireland.

What was the problem with the smear tests carried out?
The cervical screening test is often called a ‘smear test’ and involves taking a small sample of cells from the surface of the cervix. We have been made aware of possible shortcomings in the technique used to take the samples, affecting a small number of women whose tests were taken by a particular healthcare worker. A test is reported as normal if it shows no abnormal cells. However if the sample does not include cells from all parts of the cervix there is a small chance that an area of abnormal cells may have been missed. 

How did you identify this issue?
This issue was identified within a GP practice through good vigilance, monitoring and audit processes.

How will women who require a repeat test be informed?
All affected patients have been identified and have been sent a letter and additional information. They have been provided with details on how to contact their GP Practice to make an appointment for their repeat test or to speak to a member of staff if they have any concerns.

Who will be taking the repeat tests?
The repeat test will be taken by an experienced GP or practice nurse who is skilled at taking smears.

Is cervical screening only carried out in GP practices?
Cervical screening is mainly carried out in GP practices. However, some Sexual and Reproductive Health Clinics (formerly called family planning clinics) may also provide this service.

All GP Practices and individual cervical sample takers are expected to perform regular audit of their screening results using standard quality markers to ensure quality is maintained.

Nurses and midwifes are required to undertake an appropriate education programme prior to undertaking a role as a cervical sample taker and participate in regular update training.

How often are women requested to attend their GP Practice for a smear test?
Women aged 25-49 are invited for cervical screening every three years, and those aged 50-64 are invited every five years.